In my latest reading of volume 2 of Richard Nixon’s memoirs, the topic of Watergate was discussed. In June 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the Watergate hotel, where the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee was located. Their purpose was bugging it. One of those who broke in was formerly a CIA employee, and three of them were Cubans. In the address books of two of the men was the name of Howard Hunt, who once worked in the CIA and was a consultant to Charles Colson, who was part of President Richard Nixon’s inner circle. Within Hunt’s safe were found “architectural plans of the DNC office” and “wiretrapping equipment” (Nixon’s words on page 132). Also involved in organizing the break-in was G. Gordon Liddy, who “once worked at the White House on narcotics problems for Bud Krogh on [John] Ehrlichman’s Domestic Council” (page 133). Nixon narrates that he wondered if Attorney General John Mitchell knew about the bugging before it occurred, and that his hunch at the time was that Mitchell supported “planting an informant” to get information at the DNC but did not know that people would break in and bug the place.
In Nixon’s telling, Nixon’s reaction upon hearing about the break-in was bafflement. It’s not that Nixon had a serious problem with bugging, for Nixon notes that bugging was quite frequent in politics and had been done by the campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy. Rather, Nixon’s problem was with the stupidity of the break-in, for “Anyone who knew anything about politics would know that a national committee headquarters was a useless place to go for inside information on a presidential campaign” (page 113). Nixon says that he heard different rationales for the break-in and the bugging. One of them was fear that the Democrats would attempt to disrupt the Republican National Convention by distributing counterfeit tickets to demonstrators. Another was that those who broke in sought to photograph classified documents that the DNC allegedly was holding. Moreover, Liddy was trying to be a hero to the Committee to Re-Elect the President (which Nixon understandably calls “CRP” rather than “CREEP”). Why were Cubans involved in the break-in? According to Nixon, Colson soon after the break-in speculated that the Cubans organized the break-in on their own out of fear that a President George McGovern (McGovern would be Nixon’s Democratic opponent in the 1972 Presidential election) would seek to “resume diplomatic relations with Castro” (Nixon’s words), something that many Cuban emigres dreaded (page 115). Nixon relates that he was actually thinking of publicly highlighting that most of those who broke in were Cubans in order to portray McGovern as soft on Castro (page 120)!
Nixon says that he sought to persuade CIA head Richard Helms to limit the FBI’s investigation into Watergate by saying that looking into Hunt could embarrass the CIA, since Hunt was involved in the Bay of Pigs fiasco under President John F. Kennedy, and investigating Hunt could reveal just how much of a catastrophe the Bay of Pigs was! This interested me because of the references to the Bay of Pigs in Oliver Stone’s Nixon. When I first saw the movie, I was confused about how exactly the Bay of Pigs related to Watergate, and (if I’m not mistaken) one of Stone’s theses was that the Bay of Pigs pertained to the Kennedy assassination, since Stone argues that anti-Castro Cubans were involved in the plot to kill Kennedy because Kennedy reneged on helping them to overthrow Fidel Castro. Nixon does not say that, but rather he narrates that he appealed to the Bay of Pigs as a bargaining chip to encourage the CIA to limit the FBI’s investigation.
(UPDATE: On page 413, Nixon mentions the story that he released claiming to explain why he encouraged the CIA to limit the FBI’s investigation into Watergate: Nixon said in a document that he sought to ensure that the investigation would not uncover “secret CIA operations”, I presume because Watergate conspirator Howard Hunt had done things for the CIA in the past. But Nixon denied in the document that he wanted to impede the investigations into Watergate.)
On page 135, we read the following:
“It was in these days at the end of June and the beginning of July 1972 that I took the first steps down the road that eventually led to the end of my presidency. I did nothing to discourage the various stories that were being considered to explain the break-in, and I approved efforts to encourage the CIA to intervene and limit the FBI investigation. Later my actions and inactions during this period would appear to many as part of a widespread and conscious cover-up. I did not see them as such. I was handling in a pragmatic way what I perceived as an annoying and strictly political problem. I was looking for a way to deal with Watergate that would minimize the damage to me, my friends, and my campaign, while giving the least advantage to my political opposition. I saw Watergate as politics pure and simple. We were going to play it tough. I never doubted that that was exactly how the other side would have played it.”
Politics, pure and simple. Needless to say, Watergate will come up often later in this book!